Timing is Everything


Aug 13, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 13, 2005.

The link between terror in London and aid for Africa

The bombings just over a month ago in London call to mind those in Madrid last year, and not just because they were both attacks on public transit. Both may have been intended to achieve goals that are important to achieving the international jihadist movement's strategy for re-establishing an authentic Sunni Caliphate that includes all lands once subject to the Caliph.

In this case, the connection could be to jihadist strategic interests in Africa.

To understand what is transpiring, we must recognize that terror is not an end in itself, but rather a tactic employed to reach a strategic end. That it took place during the G8 meeting was probably no accident. It is possible that the bombings in London were timed to correspond to the G8 meeting simply because all G8 nations are fighting international jihadist movements (al-Qaida for short). It is also possible that the bombings had to do with the G8's agenda. If this is the case, it represents a more sophisticated level of strategic thought than is usual for jihadists.

One need only look to Iraq and Madrid to see the advances in al-Qaida's strategic thought over the past two years. The writings and actions of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi show this progression clearly, and that his goal is to establish a Taliban-like Islamic regime in Baghdad from which to rebuild the Caliphate. (Yes, Iraq is now an important front in the battle against worldwide terrorism, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the attacks on 9/11.)

Zarqawi has progressed from directing tactical assaults on coalition forces, through the realization in late 2003 that he must prevent the creation of an authentic Iraqi government and security forces supported by the people, to attempts to foment civil war as his best hope for creating instability and opportunities.

His efforts toward these latter two ends have so far failed, thanks in large part to Iraq's leaders, who have shown remarkable character in refusing to condemn the Sunni population for the atrocities of a minority of them. Recently he has turned his efforts toward deterring other Muslim nations from recognizing, and thereby legitimizing and strengthening, Iraq by attacking and killing their diplomats. He will fail in this as well, though he may delay the process somewhat.

However, the important elements here are his, and by extension al-Qaida's, recognition that actions help to achieve strategic ends, not whether they achieve these goals. The train bombings in Madrid in March 2004 can be seen as such an attack.

If this apparent progress in strategic thought is truly occurring, and if the attacks in London were efforts aimed at achieving strategic ends, then what was their purpose? One possibility is that al-Qaida, and its surrogate in Europe, thought the British would cave in and leave Iraq, as did the Spanish.

Another possibility is that the attack took place because the agenda for the G8 meeting was antithetical to al-Qaida's strategic goal of re-establishing the Caliphate. Much support for Zarqawi's efforts in Iraq and radical jihadist movements elsewhere, people and money, comes from and through Africa.

Furthermore, radical Islam has had successes in Africa. British Prime Minister Tony's Blair's agenda for the G8 can easily be seen as a threat to the conditions that enable radical Islamic movements in Northern Africa (such as Sudan) and the Horn of Africa (such as Somalia). Progress in these areas could not only cut the flow of people and resources to Zarqawi and other jihadists, but contract al-Qaida's freedom of operation in one of the only areas where they have heretofore been left relatively unmolested.

It is quite possible that al-Qaida's leaders viewed the G8 summit agenda as very dangerous to their movement, and ordered this attack to sidetrack it. Countries in which economic conditions are stable, people are educated and healthy and a modern version of the rule of law reigns are not conducive to roving bands of radical Islamic militias that murder "unbelievers," or the movement of people and resources to jihadist movements in Iraq or elsewhere.

This hypothesis remains to be tested against existing and yet-to-be-gathered intelligence. But if it is true, then besides the humanitarian reasons for helping Africa championed by rock stars and the anti-globalization movements, there are compelling counterterrorism and national security reasons for supporting well-funded and managed programs to help Africa out of its perennial dire straits.

And if this hypothesis is true, it would seem to validate that freedom — based on prosperity, education and stable governments that operate on the rule of law — are a prerequisite for defeating global terrorism.

This could be a rare point of convergence between many worthwhile agendas — and one part of the next battle in our efforts to defeat global terrorist movements.

Terrence K. Kelly is a senior researcher in the Pittsburgh office of RAND Corp. (tkelly@rand.org). He served in Iraq as the director for Militia Transition and Reintegration for the Coalition Provisional Authority for the first half of 2004. He is a retired Army officer who served on the White House staffs of Presidents Clinton and Bush.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.